July 18, 2009


It seems fitting that there should be a film about Man on the Moon exactly four decades after men first set foot on it. Not that Moon is a film about the American feat, or the Earth's sole natural satellite itself. No, director Duncan Jones' first feature is a film about what it means to be human, set on the Moon simply because its stark environs provide an excellent background for examining what precisely it is that makes us who we are. In this dusty and pockmarked petri dish, the film inquires which is more crucial to our identity: our physical presence or what we accomplish in our lifetime. (It's also fitting that Moon pays homage to the film that inspired director Jones' more prominent father's breakthrough forty years ago.)

The film tells the story of Sam Bell, the sole human employee of Lunar Industries' helium-3 extracting station Sarang ("love" in Korean,) tucked away on the far side of the Moon - the lunar hemisphere permanently turned away from the Earth. Bell only has weeks left of his three year contract as the station's acting grease monkey. He's had his fill of the mentally gruelling solitude, and can't wait to return to Earth, to his wife and his daughter. But, with only days to go, he suffers an accident that shatters his identity, and forces him to question not only his very own existence but also the role he actually plays in the obscure machinations of Lunar Industries.

Shot in only 33 days, Moon is the kind of science fiction film that's rarely made anymore. Apart from the occasional "sound in space for dramatic effect" and the odd slip (like the lack of lag in direct communication between the Moon and Earth,) it gets the science right. Helium-3 is not a variety of Kryptonite but an actual isotope, the potential application of which in nuclear fusion currently fuels the renewed interest in Moon "exploration." No action packed adventure, the film contains little that could easily be recognised as a special effect, no senseless battles or wire-stunt orgies. Instead of CGI, it relies on the almost lost art of model miniatures, its "exterior" scenes created using models constructed under the supervision of Bill Pearson - perhaps best known as supervising model maker for Ridley Scott's Alien.

The eerie resemblance goes further; like Scott, Jones got his start in commercial film. His interest in film was stirred upon visiting his father on set in Montréal, where Ridley Scott's younger brother Tony was directing the TV serial The Hunger. Moon also mirrors Alien's focus on the working class of space. Its main protagonist isn't a daring space captain, or inventive scientist. He's a grunt, undoubtedly accepting a ludicrous contract in exchange for an incredibly lucrative reward, who - like the protagonists of Alien - receives the runaround from his cynical, unscrupulous employer as a bonus. Where the two films differ, and where Jones' film is closer to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or Andrei Tarkovsky's Solyaris, is that Alien fundamentally was a horror story with venereal overtones, whereas Moon is a psychological drama.

While all these film have a languid pace in common, Moon is also closer in sentiment to Kubrick's 1968 epic and Tarkovsky's partially successful 1972 adaptation of Stanisław Lem's novel, centering on humanity's - and specifically a single human being's - isolation in the vast void of space, a species clearly out of its element. However, director Jones isn't entirely dismissive of the films that occupy the other end of the fantastical spectrum, as Moon's "infomercial" introduction clearly references Paul Verhoeven's much more aggressive contributions to the genre, like RoboCop or Starship Troopers.

Yet Moon also shares a remarkably similar design with the science fiction classics of yonder, as if interstellar interior decorating hadn't progressed much beyond minor wear and tear in the last three decades. It's not clear whether this is an intentional tribute or simply a trick played by director Jones; Moon's designs mimic those of films set in the future we now (supposedly) inhabit. It's logical that a base on the Moon, fifteen minutes into our future yet eight years after the action in 2001: A Space Odyssey, should look as if it belonged in the same era. Here, Jones appears to probe a hitherto largely unexplored, paradoxical territory in scenography, one that toys with nostalgia without "going retro."

For Sam Rockwell, the role of Bell, written especially for him, is an outstanding opportunity to display his talent. His third foray into science fiction isn't just the first that's not a comedy, but also the first where the drama almost entirely relies on his skill alone. Apart form a quantity of previously recorded messages, the supporting cast is only fleshed out, in a manner of speaking, by GERTY - an exceptionally rudimentary mechanical version of Kevin Spacey, indubitably cobbled together by that very same corporation that furnishes all spaceships and bases with sophisticated machinery of imprecise utility. Rockwell displays magnificent prowess considering the challenge.

Having earned a degree in philosophy, specialising in ethical questions surrounding artificial intelligence, and endured the travails of long-distance relationship, it's not surprising that director Jones should chose to explore the fragility of human nature, how our memories and emotions can be distorted and lost to time and distance. Moon's biblical references on the other hand - the recurring trinity, machines named for apostles, are somewhat more intriguing, if not perplexing. What truly enables Jones' first feature to stand out among the canonical dystopian visions of the (immediate) future, is his extrapolation of a system where identity has become a resource in the hands of the powerful, manipulated to exclusively serve their purposes, and allowing those in power to impose a previously unimagined level of alienation on those ruled.

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